The Hit King Sits On The Strip
Hunter S. Thompson is dead, and I am in Las Vegas. This is equal parts appropriate and absurd, since I loathe excess and am embarassed by spectacle. But now that Hunter has passed, somebody has to bear witness.
People always focus on the drugs in Fear and Loathing, but the underlying strength of the book — and why non-drug-users have been devouring it for decades — is the sense of strangeness and isolation it conveys. Vegas just happens to be the perfect setting in which to portray those twin qualities. It’s that first quality I think of when I see two storm troopers and a guy in a Darth Vader costume flanking Billy Dee Williams.
We’re at the Forum Shops, a kind of upscale mall, where a throng has gathered to purchase 30 seconds of Billy Dee’s time and a keepsake picture. My friends, Star Wars fans to a man, are all anxious to pony up the $10 for a photo with Lando Calrissian. They try to pressure me into buying one, too. Sure, I say, if he’ll pose with a Colt .45 can and sign it “To Jeff, Who Works Every Time.” But that’s not happening.
People love Billy Dee. He’s smiling, shaking hands, hugging babies, posing with beautiful ladies, their lovely daughters and their jealous husbands. He’s gracious to fanboys, suave with the females and kind to everyone. The line reaches 50 people while I’m there, and never dips below 20 deep. While my friends wait for their photo, I stroll on, aiming to find a gift for The Lovely Wife.
I stroll past thirty yards of items I can’t afford and don’t want. Then I see him.
It’s Pete Rose, signing autographs for money in front of a memorabilia shop.
Rose, resplendent in a University of Miami sweatsuit and ballcap, doesn’t seem to be doing much. He checks his watch, makes some small talk with the security guards, then sneaks another peek down at his wrist. There are three teenage girls wearing Reds jerseys that have been paid to wave advertising placards. They appear to be the closest he’s going to come to an adoring public.
In person, Pete Rose looks much like he does on television — you get the feeling that he’s waiting for someone to challenge him. He seems defiant and yet slightly bewildered, like a bull that doesn’t yet realize it has been castrated. In a way, Pete’s the perfect man for Vegas, and not just because of the obvious. In a town built for oddness and isolation, he appears one of the oddest and most isolated men around.
How much for a picture, I ask one of the young ladies. Free, she tells me. Free!
Imagine the possibilities: I could ask him about his fingerprints on those Dowd Report betting slips, the corked bat or the hair plugs. I could solicit advice on who to bet on in college bowl games. I could create a Christmas card picture by posing next to Pete Rose in an awkward B-Boy Stance. This could engender the Best Blog Post of All Time.
I begin walking up to Pete, but she stops me. The autographs and ensuing picture with Pete become free, I am informed, only after one buys an item from off the blue table inside to be signed by Charlie Hustle.
Naturally, I peek my head into the store, where I ask the indelicate but honest question: What’s the cheapest thing on the blue table? “The pictures are $79.95,” says a clerk. “It goes up from there.”
I stroll in the direction of my friends, sparing an occasional look backward at Rose. Every few minutes, someone walks up to shake his hand. Usually, Pete tries to direct them inside to the merch table, and usually, the guy smiles and shakes his head.
Meanwhile, Billy Dee Williams keeps smiling, his customers keep smiling back and strolling away from him headed for the slots. To get there, they’ll have to walk right past baseball’s hit king.
And that’s exactly what they’ll do.